When I came to my office door, I realized I had forgotten which key would open it. The halls were empty, a poster hung haphazardly from the wall, and I was flooded with scenes of our last day on campus. I wanted schools, and life, to be normal again.

I was there to pick up office supplies I had left behind when our school closed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. I picked up notes for end-of-year celebrations, tucked under my arm a framed picture of my wife and kids, and sighed at my now dead potted plants.

Before leaving, I scanned my shelf and, without thinking, grabbed a piece of student art (a plaster cast of a foot) I saved from an eighth-grader who wanted to throw it away — middle schoolers will do that. This student had been in my office on occasion last fall and for all the reasons you might imagine an eighth- grader gets sent to the Dean’s Office. But, as winter came and went, he stopped getting sent to me and instead voluntarily stopped in frequently. One time he noticed the foot and asked, “Why do you have that in here, Mr. Stribling?” I replied, “I kinda like the idea of having a piece of you in my office.” He stared at me a moment with a half-smile, turned, and left for class.

When I returned home, I unpacked my bag in my impromptu office, our guest bedroom, replete with a playfort made by my preschool son. As Dean of Students, I thought of our middle school students in their own makeshift classrooms, wondering how long this would last and what this all means. I wondered, what did the students make of all of this, and how could we make what’s to come feel normal for them?

Education is a human endeavor. It is messy, nonlinear, and as desirable a difficulty as one can take on. As schools ideate about what the next normal will be, we must take this opportunity to be as human-centered and equitable as our students need us to be. We are at an inflection point that has affected each of us asymmetrically and profoundly. Remote learning has thrown us overboard. We may be all in this together, but we are going through it individually, too.

I thought about the eighth-grade boy whose plaster cast foot rested on my desk. What does he need from us now? Could we provide it? I had asked those questions prior to our present situation. Now, the answers seem more urgent than ever. We are in uncharted waters. But we need to keep the humans in our charge at the center of our thinking. As educators sail into the blank spaces of the educational map, there are three buoys to triangulate while setting course: Students have a need to be, belong, and become.

For meaningful growth and development, students should have regular opportunities to understand and recognize themselves — to be. Chances to be still, to be mindful, to be more curious than certain, and to be joyful. We also know that having a sense of belonging is necessary for seeing the value in life and coping with intense emotional pain. Don’t we need that now, more than ever? When we can see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, we can fully engage in a tight community such as a school. Our classrooms will need to provide opportunities for students to become and realize their full potential. They should be given chances to take risks and make mistakes; to do, think, learn, unlearn, and repeat. After all, middle school is messy.

In the next normal — whatever that is — designing an educational arc that allows each student to be, to belong, and to become their full selves will be critical to the value, and survival, of our schools. That is the story we will need to tell our students, families, and staff. How will we tell that story?

We have to jump into the task headfirst, no time for dipping toes in the water. I’m ready — and inspired by poet Marge Piercy’s writing:

The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.

Returning to the present moment, I look at the plaster cast foot and turn it over in my hands. Setting it down, I open my Google Calendar and set up a time to meet with the eighth-grade artist. No time for “dallying in the shallows”— it’s time to submerge in the task.